Ministers have extended the ban on landlords evicting tenants in England and Wales until 20 September, following fears thousands could lose their homes.
In most cases, until the end of March, renters will also get six months’ notice if their landlord plans to evict them.
Courts had been due to resume cases on Monday after a five-month pause.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the latest announcement just gave “renters a few more weeks to pack their bags”.
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said he was “supporting renters over winter” amid the ongoing effects of the coronavirus outbreak adding that, when the ban was lifted, the most serious cases of anti-social behaviour, other crimes, and unpaid rent for over a year would be heard first.
One landlords’ group described the blanket extension as “unacceptable”.
Before the pandemic, notice of eviction was usually two months. In Wales, that had already been extended to six until the end of September and remains under review.
In Scotland, a proposal for six months of notice until March requires approval from the Scottish Parliament, and laws in Northern Ireland include a 12-week notice period.
A survey by homelessness charity Shelter suggested that more than 170,000 private tenants have been threatened with eviction by their landlord or letting agent, and 230,000 in England have fallen into arrears since the pandemic started.
Polly Neate, Shelter’s chief executive, said: “It is right for the government not to lift the ban when it risks exposing people to eviction and the threat of homelessness with no means of defence.
“The government must use this short window of time wisely to put proper safeguards in place for renters.”
Health bodies had warned that homelessness or moves that resulted in people living in overcrowded accommodation could risk higher numbers of Covid-19 infections. Politicians have now called for more than the latest extension to the ban.
Labour’s leader, Sir Keir, said “Such a brief extension means there is a real risk that this will simply give renters a few more weeks to pack their bags.”
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He described the move as an “11th-hour u-turn” and said Prime Minister Boris Johnson had “stuck his head in the sand” for months, adding: “The ban should not be lifted until the government has a credible plan to ensure that no-one loses their home as a result of coronavirus.”
The former Conservative Communities Secretary, Lord Pickles, told BBC Radio 4’s World at One that the ban should be extended into next spring.
He said “periodic” extensions were “pointless” without further legislative action to give tenants more security.
In a letter to judges, Master of the Rolls Sir Terence Etherton said that, having expected the end of the ban on Sunday, the proposal had been of “an extremely unusual nature and timing” but would allow further work to be done to prepare for the ban to be lifted.
Lawyers and landlords’ groups have said that, even after a ban expires, there is little expectation of people who have faced Covid-related financial problems being swiftly told to leave properties.
Ben Beadle, chief executive of the National Residential Landlords Association, said: “A blanket extension is unacceptable, especially so close to the deadline. This announcement satisfies no-one.
“Landlords have been left powerless in exercising their legal right to deal with significant arrears unrelated to Covid-19, anti-social behaviour and extremely disruptive tenants who make life miserable for their neighbours and housemates.
“Private landlords cannot be expected to foot the bill for government failure.”
This announcement lifts the immediate threat of eviction. Ministers also hope the new six month notice period will prevent a raft of evictions in the winter month.
The move has been welcomed – but some are warning it is a sticking plaster and ministers need to use the time to come up with solutions.
Some are suggesting a fund to help those who have fallen into rent arrears.
But on the other side of the debate, the National Residential Landlords Association is worried, saying landlords had been left powerless in dealing with non-payment of rent.
In Wales, tenants who have fallen into arrears are being aided with a saving scheme.
Landlord groups have called for more help in England to reduce the financial pressures on landlords, in addition to mortgage holidays.
David Batchelder, 35, was laid off from his job in pest control at the start of lockdown and is typical of tenants struggling with their finances owing to the economic fall-out of the pandemic.
He lives in a flat in High Wycombe with his partner, who works as a building company receptionist, and at the moment is a stay-at-home dad to one-year-old daughter Miley.
The fall in income and reliance on benefits means he is worried about the future.
“In all honesty, [benefits] are not enough and just do not cover everything,” he said.
“In difficult times there is a possibility that we could end up losing our home. We would like to know that we’ve got somewhere secure.
“The landlords have been very good so far, but they can only do so much. And if there was another coronavirus wave, it will be very worrying as to what might happen.”
Advice for tenants
- Anyone under threat of eviction should start gathering evidence such as receipts for rent paid or any communications with your landlord
- Landlords have to give you notice before they can apply to court for a possession order. For most tenancy types this notice must now be at least three months in England or six in Wales, but lodgers may get less notice
- If a possession order had already been made against you before 27 March 2020, then your landlord may apply for this to be enforced when the ban comes to an end. You should receive 14 days’ notice of the eviction date
- Anyone now struggling to pay rent should speak to their landlord, and organise a repayment plan to pay off arrears
- Those receiving housing benefit or Universal Credit and unable to pay rent might be able to get a discretionary housing payment from the local council